There are no clues that the breezy, grass-covered, empty lot at 66th and Ashland was once the master plant of Chicago’s most famous bakery, or, that the red brick storefront at 33rd and Wallace in Bridgeport was its first location. But it’s true. Although gone without a trace, Dressel’s Bakery was for more than 60 years the maker of Chicago’s most beloved special-occasion treat: the Dressel’s Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream Cake. Moist layers of chocolate fudge cake stacked around dreamy whipped cream with light chocolate buttercream slathered over all and a crushed-nut garnish, Dressel’s signature cake was Chicago’s go-to for birthdays, anniversaries, christenings and graduation parties. In fact, throughout the company’s history the Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream cake outsold all other Dressel’s cakes at a ratio of 60% chocolate fudge, to 40% everything else.
The story of that cake is the story of a hard-working immigrant family, which brought the various talents of three brothers and generations of relatives and friends together. First farmers in Barrington, (after coming to America from Germany in the early 1900s,) the two older Dressel brothers—Joe & Bill—were initiated into baking by their uncle Lorenz Nock who operated a bakery in Bridgeport at 33rd & Wallace. Joe & Bill bought the business in 1913—while they were still teens–and younger brother Herman pretty much grew up there, working full-time in the bakery by the time he was 14, and becoming a partner in the business in 1923.
To Joe & Bill’s sales-, production- and people-skills, Herman—who was in charge of cakes–added his friendly nature, innovator’s spark and artistic skills, proposing the idea of a whipped cream cake in the early ’20s. It was a smash hit from the start. By 1929, it took two policemen to handle the Saturday crowds lined up down the sidewalk and Dressel’s was selling $2,000 to $3,000 worth of the cakes in a day, priced at 60-cents, 75-cents and $1.00. The volume didn’t wane, building to 10,000 cakes a week by the ‘40s, with ten phone lines to take orders. To handle that kind of demand, the Dressel’s started experimenting with freezing the layers of the cakes well before WWII.
Figuring out how to formulate the cake so that thawed, it would remain moist and light, took innovation. First, Dressel’s cut no corners on quality. In-the-shell eggs all came from one farm, butter from one supplier, and the cream—the heart of the cake—was brought in from dairies and pasteurized on site. Understanding the importance of that cream layer, Herman Dressel studied breeds of cow and the grasses they were fed, in order to hone in on the cream he preferred (from Holsteins cows Wisconsin.) As well, Dressel used the highest-butterfat content cream and then actually added butter to the cream in a proprietary reverse process he developed that was only used at Dressel’s.
Other early innovations included (during the very early years) incorporating very-finely-crushed carrot pulp into the fudge cake layers for greater moisture retention. As well, cake layers were made with oil, rather than butter, so that when chilled, the layers would not be as rigid, and would melt-in-the-mouth more easily. The buttercream was whipped with a percentage of vegetable shortening which volume-ized better for a lighter mouth feel than pure-butter buttercream. And the uber-buttery whipped cream was stabilized (given more firmness) with the addition of agar-agar, a vegetable-based gelatin. (Most of these processes were used until sometime after American Bakeries bought the company in 1963.)
While Dressel’s cake was a production cake—no home baker can perfectly emulate Dressel’s techniques —Lost Recipes Found worked with members of the Dressel’s family (Herman’s sons Dan and Allan; and Herman’s brother-in-law Marty Schell, who worked in cake production for years) to create a home-cook version of the Dressel’s Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream cake to which the Dressel’s have given their approval. Most important? Dan Dressel stresses that each layer of cake and whipped cream must be exactly the same thickness. As well, the buttercream must not be too thick. “My dad worked very hard to ensure that when you took a bite of the cake, the flavors and textures were perfectly balanced,” says Dressel.
To help you in making the cake, we’ve posted a step-by-step how-to video featuring Heidi Hedeker, a pastry chef instructor at Kendall College. Plus, a mini documentary of the Dressel’s cake story. And please, if you have your own memories or stories to share about Dressel’s, post a comment in the comment box below.
Makes 2, 9-inch layers; one whipped cream cake
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 4 tsp vanilla
- 1 1/3 cups boiling water
- 1/2 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/3 cups cake flour
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup toasted & ground mixed walnuts & pecans for sides of finished cake
Light Chocolate Buttercream Ingredients
- 2 cups room temperature unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 Tbsp Dutch-process cocoa powder
Whipped Cream Ingredients
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 tsp agar agar
- 3 cups Kilgus Farmstead or other non-homogenized heavy cream (closest approximation to what Dressel’s used)
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two, 9-inch baking pans by greasing them and lining them with parchment paper circles. Also at this point: Set out the two cups of unsalted butter for your buttercream on your counter to bring it to room temperature (pliable, but not soft) for making your frosting later.
In large mixing bowl, beat sugar and eggs 3 minutes until fluffy and creamy. Blend in oil and vanilla and beat two minutes more. Combine boiling water and cocoa powder, stir to dissolve, mix in soda and salt. Pour into batter and incorporate. Add flour and mix until blended and smooth. Pour into prepared pans and tap pans to release bubbles. Bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes until cake springs back when touched. Remove from oven; let rest in pans for five minutes. Turn onto racks. Let cakes cool completely.
While cake is baking, make whipped cream. Place 1 cup water in saucepan with 1/2 tsp agar agar. Heat to boiling; boil 4 1/2 minutes. Let solution cool just until you can immerse your finger in it–still quite warm and liquid–this takes about 3 to 3 1/2 minutes. While you’re waiting, combine 3 cups of cream with 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. Turn mixer to low speed. Before cream reaches soft peak stage, add 3 Tbsp of the warm liquid agar/water solution to cream all at once (there should be at least 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of this solution left after boiling) and whip until consistency firms up. Note: The whipped cream will not be super firm–just firmer than typical whipped cream.
Make your light chocolate buttercream. Whip two cups of room temperature unsalted butter with 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening and 4 cups powdered sugar at low speed for 8 to 10 minutes until the mixture is fluffy. Add two tsp vanilla. Whip again just to incorporate. Mix together 2 1/2 Tbsp oil with 4 Tbsp Dutch process cocoa powder. Whisk into buttercream until evenly distributed.
Assemble cake: Trim the “dome” off the top of each fudge layer to ensure each cake layer is exactly level and of the same thickness. (Note: if you are allergic to nuts, crumble this trim into crumbs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Toast crumbs in the oven at 300 degrees until crispy. Crush these crumbs fine and reserve.) Place first fudge layer on a cake liner on a footed cake stand. Carefully pipe 1-inch of buttercream around the rim of the fudge layer, so you now have a standing lip of buttercream on the cake layer. Fill this with 1-inch tall whipped cream. Add several more spoons of whipped cream onto the center. Layer the second fudge layer of cake over the whipped cream layer. Using an offset spatula, carefully seal the outside edge of the cake (sealing whipped cream in) with buttercream, using a little more buttercream if needed. Frost top of cake with buttercream. Frost sides of cake with buttercream. Apply crushed nuts (toasted walnut and pecan) to sides of the cake. (Or, if allergic to nuts, apply the toasted cake crumbs to the sides of the cake.) Freeze the cake, which will ensure that the whipped cream layer and buttercream will firm up. Set cake out 1/2 hour to 45 minutes before serving to soften.